What do we mean by fare-free public transport?

written by:

Wojciech Keblowski and Merlin Gillard

This blogpost is the first in the hopefully long series of many interesting reflections on fare-free public transport (FFPT). But what is FFPT, and what do we mean by it?

What is fare-free public transport?

First, instead of just calling it “free public transport” or “free transit”, we want to clearly emphasise the absence of fares as the main characteristic of the policy.

Second, the term “fare-free” underlines the fact that fares are “free” not because nobody pays. Rather, fare-free programmes are indeed paid for, benefitting from generous public subsidies that cover all operational costs including energy, personnel and vehicle maintenance.

Often, fully subsidising a PT network is not such a large step to make, when subsidies are already high and tickets sales only account for 10 or 20% of the revenue of the PT system. This directly tackles the questions of “who pays for public transport?”. For example, do PT users need to pay an additional fee, on top of their taxes, to board a bus? Or should PT only be financed by its effective users, and not by the collectivity?

Third, by focusing on “fare-free public transport”, we emphasise that we do not explore privately-owned services, for instance shopping centres organising bus services for their customers, large companies providing collective transport to their employees, hotel shuttles offering to transport their guests.

In sum, in this website, as in our research, we look at diverse cases of fare-free public transport (FFPT), as a particular form of subsidy provided by public authorities.

What is full FFPT?

In our work, we make a crucial distinction between full and partial FFPT.

We define full FFPT as a system implemented on the vast majority of routes and services provided within a given PT network, available to the vast majority of its users, most of the time, and for a period of at least 12 months. One example of full FFPT can be found in Aubagne (France), where there is no ticket needed whatsoever to board the local tram and buses, which are open to residents and visitors alike. Full FFPT also can be found in Tallinn, where fare-free tickets are available to the city’s registered inhabitants. While the visitors need to pay a fare, they constitute a small minority of public transport users, making about 4% of the number of trips on the city’s buses, trolleybuses and trams. Our research indicates that in at least 250 localities worldwide full FFPT is provided.

What is partial FFPT?

In networks that offer partial FFPT, free-fares are provided under temporal, spatial or social limitations. In other words, free access to public transport is available some of the time, in specific areas or on specific routes, and for specific passenger groups.

Temporary FFPT happens when fares are abolished for a short period of time, which we define here as more than 1 month less than 12 months. For example, FFPT is applied for a limited trial period, and then abandoned after the trial did not produce the anticipated results. This occurred in Stavanger (Norway), where having abolished fares in August 2011 the municipality restored them in December that year.

This definition of temporary FFPT excludes singular events, for example when fares are exceptionally suspended for a very limited time, to adapt to a specific context. This can be related to high air pollution levels, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or financial and political crises, or events such as New Years Eve and the “car-free day” (celebrated annually on 22nd of September in various municipalities worldwide). In the latter case, the goal of FFPT is to promote the use of public transport.

Temporally-limited FFPT happens when fares are not charged during specific and regular periods of time. For example, to avoid congestion during morning peak hours, collective transport in Singapore used to be free to before 7.45 a.m, and thereafter a normal fare would be charged.

Spatially-limited FFPT refers to transport systems where only a specific section of the network or a specific mode of transport are fare-free. It can also apply to public transport services that are in fact composed of only one or two routes, and therefore could hardly be considered as a network.

Socially-limited FFPT is a relatively common policy of providing specific group of users have fare-free access to public transport services. Passenger groups benefitting from this policy can be defined by age (e.g. children, youth, the elderly), (dis)abilities, status (tourists), socio-economic condition (the unemployed, with low income, benefitting from social welfare). These different forms of partial FFPT are not mutually exclusive: they can be combined within the same transport system.